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The labeling has begun.
While no motive has yet been officially given by the Californian police, the woman identified as the Youtube shooter, Nasim Aghdam, is being introduced by every media outlet from The Sun to UniLad as an ‘animal rights’ vlogger and ‘vegan’ activist.
Nasim Aghdam has been identified as the suspect who opened fire outside of the company’s headquarters in San Bruno, injuring three people before killing herself.
There are reports circulating that she had a vendetta against YouTube for cutting off her income from her videos, after YouTube felt that many of her videos were inappropriate for younger people due to their graphic, animal rights content.
Violence and frustration
Don’t let the media fool you into thinking that picking up a gun and killing other human beings is anything to do with a vegan lifestyle.
Her veganism and animal activism, promoted so visibly in the media headlines, has nothing proven to do with her motivations to act violently.
What is emerging is a picture of a very frustrated and out of control person, driven to act against a company who she felt was unfairly impacting her ability to earn money, and express her opinions.
And yet already, vegan activists throughout the UK are preparing for a backlash to their outreach, as they prepare to go out on the streets this weekend, whether on Save vigils or Anonymous for the Voiceless Cubes of Truth.
One activist told me: “We’re gonna have to really emphasise the kindness and compassion during outreach in order to overcome the stigma around us following a mass shooting at YouTube HQ.”
And if recent history is anything to go on, the anti-vegan sections of the public are going to love the fact they have another piece of evidence that vegans are all bad people.
The stigma around animal activism exists, of course, somewhere between the reality of historical activities by groups such as the Animal Liberation Front, and the overhyped, sensational and prejudicial labels the media quickly throw upon anyone standing up for animals.
This is true in the UK and the US, where eco- and animal rights activism has long been seen as forms of ‘terrorism’ by Government and police agencies.
But the reason the media can rely so easily on this shorthand description is because it does exist – and they are mostly responsible for the stereotype.
The media love shorthand ways of expressing caricatures – especially in headlines, and especially where those caricatures can be speedily interpreted by readers to make the story more attention grabbing and dramatic.
And it works – to distort reality. Figures published by Ipsos MORI showed the widely disparaging misconceptions and ignorance of a public who are fed sensationalist headlines and stories.
The research showed, for example, that people believed £24 out of every £100 issued as benefits is spent fraudulently; in fact the real figure is around 70p. The average UK citizen believes that 31 percent of people in the UK are immigrants (it’s actually 13 percent) and why we think 24 percent of the British population is Muslim (it’s actually five percent).
And why is this? The National Readership Survey suggests one reason: the two most read publications in the UK are…The Sun and The Daily Mail. Two of the most sensationalist media outlets in the world.
And if this is the case for immigrants, Muslims and benefit frauds… why do we believe the sensationalist headlines around vegans (including the erroneous ones recently about death threats to farmers) should result in anything different?
Present vegans as militant, angry, or evil – or present violent shooters as animal activists, when the two actions don’t have any proven relation – then people will begin to make the links themselves.
Is it a surprise then that The Daily Mail is the most fair-handed in its condemnation of her character, referencing the ‘MANY faces of YouTube shooter’ Aghdam as ‘vegan bodybuilder, athlete, artist, comedian, poet, model, singer, host, actor, director, producer’?
There are three damaging perceptions about vegans and vegan activists that circulate in our culture and are constantly fed by distorted media representations. That we are all angry or militant; that we are all undernourished or unhealthy; and that we are jobless shirkers happy to live off the taxes of hard workers (particularly farmers, butchers and slaughterhouse workers).
But animal advocates and those doing vegan outreach are challenging these perceptions.
Animal activism and vegan outreach have been transformed in the last decade by more professional, love-based and compassion-focused groups such as the Save Movement and Anonymous for the Voiceless; the spread of vegan festivals and veggie/vegan social groups on MeetUp.com and Facebook; and through the increasing number of farmed animal sanctuaries, such as Pigs in the Wood and Hugletts.
The market-driven journalism of our media sphere, where headlines are enticements for clicks and clicks translate into money, needs to be constantly monitored for its invidious and dangerous stereotypes.
And the stereotypes of vegans and animal activists are no less damaging to this community – which is made up of overwhelmingly normal human beings – than they are to immigrant or poor or disabled communities.
The actions of Nasim Aghdam at YouTube HQ are horrendous and violent and cannot be defended. But was her veganism any part of this? I don’t see any headlines of the Parkland or Las Vegas or London shootings leading with ‘Meat Eater X’ or ‘Carnist Advocate Y’.
The rise of veganism has been a peaceful, profound, and yes challenging but ultimately compassionate movement towards a greater sense of justice for people and animals. Let’s not let the mainstream media get away with telling the world a sensationalist and wrong story.